BEIJING | Maybe nothing represents the globalization of society more than our country’s newest Olympic gymnastics champion. She’s Anastasia Valeryevna Liukin, born in Russia but as much a red-white-and-blue all-American as any other kid who grew up in suburban Dallas.
Nicknamed "Nastia," Liukin won the women’s all-around title Friday morning (Thursday night in the United States) in a thrilling competition over teammate and good friend Shawn Johnson of West Des Moines, Iowa.
Liukin’s final total was 63.325, with Johnson getting the silver (62.725) and China’s Yilin Yang the bronze (62.650).
"I’m very proud of my heritage," Liukin said. "I definitely feel like I went out there today and represented both countries. I am competing for the U.S., but my name is definitely a Russian name. So I hope I made my family proud and the fans proud in Russia as well as the United States."
Johnson and Liukin have been pals since they started competing together, and they are roommates here at the Olympics. They led the U.S. team to a silver medal on Wednesday, and then their focus turned away from the group effort and toward their individual hopes. Still
"We both supported each other 100 percent," Liukin said. "We made a little calendar by our beds, and (last night) we looked at each other like, 'Can you believe it? Tomorrow’s the day.' We just wanted to go all out and have fun."
Was it strange having your top competitor as your roommate? Both gymnasts said not at all. They’ve always gotten along well and benefited from the times they train together.
"It’s never been awkward for us," Liukin said. "We’ve pushed each other to the limit in the few years that we’ve competed with each other. We both became a better and a stronger gymnast because of each other. If it would have just been one of us, there wouldn’t have been someone chasing your tail and making you want to work harder."
Liukin likely would have been on the 2004 U.S. team for the Athens Games were it not for the age requirement that a gymnast must be at least 16 in the Olympic year. She was only 14 then, and while talented enough, simply wasn’t old enough by the rules.
Now 18, she celebrates a gold medal 20 years after her father and coach, Valeri, won two gymnastics golds for the Soviet Union in the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Valeri Liukin won his golds on the high bar and as part of the Soviets’ team victory in South Korea. His wife and Nastia’s mother, Anna Kotchneva, was a world champion in rhythmic gymnastics.
Valeri also earned two silver medals in Seoul, one of them in the all-around.
"She fixed my mistake,” Valeri said of his daughter. “By half a tenth, I was second."
The family moved to Texas in 1992, where they run a gym. Their prize pupil has been Nastia, who was not quite 3 years old when she came to the United States. And while she is Russian by heritage and genetics, she grew up like a regular American child — albeit one with incredible athletic talent and the ability to speak Russian.
Although she says when she visits Russia to see her grandparents and other family members, people tend to stare at her for speaking Russian with an American accent.
She’s a big fan of the Dallas Mavericks, saying before the gymnastics competition began that her biggest thrill was meeting Dirk Nowitzki. Now, she’s earned considerable fame herself.
Johnson and Liukin started the all-around on vault. Liukin stuck her landing, but has a lower degree of difficulty than Johnson has. Johnson’s vault earned her a 15.875, while Liukin got a 15.025
Next came the uneven bars, where Liukin has one of the toughest routines in the world. She had said after team competition she hoped to score a 17.000. But a few flaws instead gave her a 16.650, still a great score. Johnson scored 15.275 on bars, and then they moved on to the balance beam where Johnson figured to make up ground.
On the beam, Johnson briefly had to recover her balance, but her routine was solid overall and earned her a 16.050. Then Liukin did her beam routine and was terrific. Her elegance and power are particularly evident on the beam.
And after sticking her landing, her father/coach wrapped her in a hug that all but said, "You’re in first place." Indeed she was, after getting a 16.125 score and moving into the lead at 47.800 over second-place Yang (47.650) and Johnson at 47.200.
Yang was the first of the three to go on floor exercise, and she scored a 15.000. Next came Liukin, who nailed her first tumbling pass and seemed to float confidently through the rest of her routine. She scored a 15.525.
Last was Johnson, who was very good on the floor. Her 15.525 was enough to overtake Yang for the silver, but not Liukin.
"Honestly, when I saw her score come up, I knew I couldn’t," Johnson said of hoping to leap-frog over Liukin for gold. "I knew a score six-tenths higher than hers would be a dream.
"I am happy and proud of myself; it’s been a really long road. All the emotions are coming to us now. I went out there and gave my heart and soul. Nastia deserved that gold today."
Liukin hugged Johnson on the medal podium, got her gold and then saw the U.S. flag raised for her. Valeri said he came to the United States because it offered opportunities he did not feel he would have in Russia. Now, he’s given back to the United States a gold medalist.
"It’s been a dream come true for both of us; he’s worked just as hard as I have," Nastia said. "He’s been with me every single day, traveling with me all over the world. And my mom, too, she plays a huge role in this.
"It just makes it even more amazing knowing 20 years ago, my dad competed at the ’88 Olympics and he was so close to winning that all-around gold medal. Just standing on that podium, thinking about that, I hope that I made up for that. I hope he feels just as proud as I am of it.”